Flying Without Ever Leaving The Ground

At the University of North Dakota, one of the country’s largest collegiate flight schools, they’re flying something different: Drones.

By 2018, just five years from now, the FAA projects that 7500 drones, or unmanned aircraft, could be flying in U.S. airspace. And the University of North Dakota hopes to be supplying many of their pilots.

The University of North Dakota’s aviation program at the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences is huge and internationally prestigious. They train helicopter pilots, air traffic controllers, and they fly hundreds of flights a day from Grand Forks airport making it the 23rd-busiest in the United States, despite having only six commercial flights.

The Unmanned Aviation Systems major, which started in 2009, now has 134 undergraduates. And it’s one of the fastest-growing majors.

“Our school has always been entrepreneurial,” says Bruce Smith, dean of the Odegard School. “So there’s always been a connection between the degrees our students get and the jobs and the careers that are available out in the industry.”

[Related: U.S. broke international law by killing civilians with drones: rights groups]

The newly minted drone pilots, all commercially licensed pilots as well can earn as much as $120,000 a year depending on the position. And while military combat has dominated the past decade, the future offers a wide array of possibilities, like fighting forest fires.

“Being able to coordinate where..water is used, where manpower is used, where aircrafts drop their retardants,” says UND student Scott Johnson. “You’re going to be able to fight the fire so much more effectively because you’ll be able to see it from 60,000 feet.”

Student Jake Schultz sees drones being applied to farming. “You could use one to just fly over crops to see maybe where there’s disease, and then you can go in with maybe a different [drone] that would actually have chemicals on board that you can spray.”

[Related: Archaeologists use drones in Peru to map and protect sites]

Aside from the academic study of flight, students spend a huge amount of time practicing to fly in state-of-the-art flight simulators. But learning to fly while seated on the ground. That’s a different skill set.

“You have to almost create an imaginary picture of what is happening around the aircraft since you aren’t physically there inside the aircraft,” says UND student Meg Kaiser.

Critics, though, express concerns about a future where drones can fly practically anywhere and potentially violate privacy.

“It’s tempting to compare drones to small planes or helicopters or different technologies that we know, but it can be hard to know who is flying the particular drone or who it belongs to or who’s getting the feed,” says Parker Higgins from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “And that creates a situation where the technology’s moving fast and law moves at the same pace as it always does.”

The University of North Dakota takes these issues seriously and requires any flight test of its unmanned aircraft to be vetted and approved by a committee.

“So, it was a natural extension for us to create a compliance committee that looked at the use of unmanned aircraft in the same way that a medical school would look at use of human subjects in the use of different test drugs,” says Dean Smith.

Once accepted and regulated by the FAA in the next few years, unmanned aircraft may have a bigger role than anyone realizes, and more and more pilots may be flying from the ground.

[Related: Maryland Bids To Become Testing Site For Unmanned Drones]

“Within the next 15 years, unmanned aircraft will be the platform of choice for everything airborne except for passenger travel and for general aviation,” adds Dean Smith.

Thanks to the University of North Dakota for the use of their video.

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